Retrolicious–Mad Men 6.10: “A Tale Of Two Cities”

Hosted by Tami Winfrey Harris and  Andrea Plaid

Gratuitous photo of Dawn being fabulous. You're welcome.
Gratuitous photo of Dawn (Teyonah Parris) being fabulous. You’re welcome.

Does Mad Men love L.A.? If their annual trips out there right about this time are any indication, the answer is sunny, sunglasses-wearing “yes.” However, does the Retrolicious Roundtable love Mad Men in L.A.? Weeeelllllll…

Tami, Renee Martin from Womanist Musings and Fangs For The Fantasy, and I debate the merits of these westerly jaunts, the naturalness of Joan’s and Peggy’s alliance, and the existence of moderate Republicans, complete with a bunch of spoilers.

Tami: I am usually the person who gets the conversation started on these roundtables. And my tablemates can attest that this week it took me several days. This episode of Mad Men felt like filler–the weakest of the season for me. I hate it when they go to Los Angeles!

Renee: I didn’t necessarily consider it filler this time because of everything that happened at the office while Roger and Don were gone. Seeing Joan assert herself was worth quite a bit to me, and I am so tired of them overlooking everything she does and treating her like a glorified secretary.

Andrea: I thought the episode felt off, but not because it was the series’ yearly field trip to L.A. At least, with this trip to the sunny city, Don didn’t do something eye-rollingly symbolic, like baptising himself in the Pacific Ocean. I think it felt off because Don, Roger, and Harry felt off being there this time around : stiffly suited-up Don and Roger’s yachting outfit looking out of place amidst the dashikis (!!!!) and the hippie beads, and Harry looking out of place in his usual nebbishly trying-too-hard way. His outfit matched his office decor, not the party he boasted he had the hook-up to.

And I agree with you, Renee, that I was happy to see Joan stepping ahead and getting a client. Not only do I get tired of the rest of the staff treating her like the queen of the secretaries instead of the partner they cajoled her into fucking her way to get, but their reminding her of that very fact, as if she didn’t do it to help their asses land a major client.

Tami: Roger Sterling, I love ya, but you deserved that shot to the grapes. Both Roger and Don have a hard time in places where being The Man doesn’t automatically give them privilege. Roger walked into that California party dressed like Thurston Howell III and acting like the cock of the walk. It killed him that nebbishy Danny Siegel was The Man in that setting.

Andrea plots to punch Danny Siegal in the 'nads for that damn dashiki he's wearing.
Andrea plots to punch Danny Siegel in the ‘nads for that damn dashiki he’s wearing.

Renee: I was actually really happy to see Roger get punched.  He had it coming, and I didn’t think that he would actually get a consequence for his behaviour.  At times like this, it’s so clear how behind the times Roger actually is, though he thinks that he is with it and someone to be admired at all times. For all of his antics, Roger is a dinosaur, and he simply does not realise it yet.

Andrea: Wait…we’re going to talk about this like Roger’s ex-brother-in-law wasn’t wearing a dashiki?!? Yes, I looooooove me some John Slattery, and, yes, the ex-BIL gave Roger his comeuppance, but…Danny was wearing a dashiki! And now that piece of West African clothing–and an afro wig–is seen a “hippie” costume, no thanks to that appropriation back then.

Tami: Don should stick to the bottle and lay off the drugs. His trips never go well. Are we surprised that in his subconscious, Don wants Megan pregnant and unemployed? He is so ambivalent about strong women. He is drawn to them. (Think of most of his mistresses.) But he is made uncomfortable by them. I suspect because as a Depression-era orphan he dreamed of being a Captain of Industry and that sort of man doesn’t have an equal wife–an actress wife or a bohemian wife or a psychologist wife or a wife who runs her family department store.

Renee: An unemployed pregnant Megan would only justify his continuing desire to cheat on her and possibly eventually leave.  Even though Megan is working, if we’re honest, she really isn’t strong and really isn’t independent.  She has thrown a few temper tantrums, but Don can basically run roughshod over her anytime he chose to. I do however find it interesting that he is trying to be more attentive now that they have agreed their relationship isn’t working. Don wants the freedom of a single man but at the end of the day, he wants a wife at home.

Andrea: But let’s be real here. Don cheated on Betty, and she was a stay-at-home mom with three of his children. Don cheated on Megan, and she’s a working wife. The only reason Don stopped cheating wasn’t because he wants a wife, but that he either got caught, confronted, and/or other  kicked out of the marriage or was dumped by a mistress. Don likes to cheat, full stop. Honestly, I suspect he thinks that’s the way a marriage is supposed to go. I think that, if his latest mistress didn’t dump him, he would’ve pulled on Megan what he pulled on Betty if he impregnated the former. Hate to sound cynical, but Don is attentive because he hasn’t found another other woman yet.

Tami: I find the relationship between Peggy and Joan so fascinating. They aren’t a generation apart, but I feel like they might as well be. Opportunities for women evolved a lot in the years between each of them coming to Sterling Cooper. I think Joan is every bit as smart as Peggy, but I don’t think it ever occurred to her that she could be an accounts woman or that she could build a career not based on her body and sexuality. Avon would be good for Joan. It would prove to the office (and Pete’s smarmy ass) that no matter how she got to her position, she deserves to be there.

I think Peggy and Joan respect each other, but don’t quite understand each other. They are very different women.

This isn't a natural alliance, but it still winds up looking like too much of feminism nowadays, doesn't it?
This isn’t a natural alliance, but it still winds up looking like too much of feminism nowadays, doesn’t it?

Renee: Peggy and Joan should be natural allies, but they cannot understand each other, and I think that there is a large degree of resentment in their interactions.  I was glad to see Joan push for more from the company.  Considering that they are headed straight for the women’s right’s movement, if Joan and Peggy were to team up, they would be a very powerful team.

I agree with you when you say that Joan is every bit as smart as Peggy.  She knows that she has no one to fall back on and makes strategic moves to benefit her.  The problem for Joan is that though she has worked incredibly hard, the fact that she slept with the Jaguar guy, is always going to be hung over her head.  Pete pushed her to do this because he desperately wanted the account, and now that he has gotten what he wanted, he feels free to look down is smarmy nose at her.

Andrea: No, Peggy and Joan aren’t “natural” allies–I think that’s a huge fallacy that seems to hang over progressive thinking that the almost cyclical fallouts with marginalized groups of folks who’d have a common purpose to work together to help end different oppressions have proven again and again precisely because we don’t “get” the nuances of each others’ struggles. That’s the contention behind, for example, the pushback about “Gay Is The New Black” slogan or the fallout regarding the naming of SlutWalk.

The same holds true with Joan and Peggy. Though they’re both women dealing with the rank sexism at Sterling Cooper & Partners, they each maneuvered within and around it differently. Joan uses her Girl Friday/Bombshell approach to get around and even enforce the company’s anti-woman attitudes and structures to maintain the power she had as office manager and to get the partnership she has. Peggy took a more straightforward approach to getting to her current job, even as she’s dealt with fellow copy editors grabbing her ass or the men she’s dealt with at the company–including clients–coming at her sideways for daring to be a copy editor in a female-presenting body. And let’s not forget that even Joan came at Peggy sideways as she climbed the proverbial ladder.

The men at the company never reached out to Joan to even ask her if she wanted to learn the business–she learned what she knows by observation, which was apparent in how she conducted the meeting with the Avon rep and Peggy. One of the men–namely Don–mentored Peggy, which is why she flipped out at Joan about not understanding the mechanics of how such meetings are supposed to go. But I do think that Peggy understood the reasons for Joan stepping ahead and taking responsibility for the Avon account, which is why I think Peggy helped her out by episode’s end, even if she did it with a held nose.

Tami: What’s Cutler’s angle? Hell, what’s Bob Benson’s angle? What’s up with Ginsberg? That whole deal with Manischewitz…I’m not sure what went on there. Cutler is one to watch. And it’s good to see Harry Hamlin on screen again.

Andrea: Y’all leave Benson alone. 😀 He gets along to go along, and it seems like–whatever his official duty was at Cutler Gleason and Chaough–he’s performed the Diva Babysitter function at the former firm, if the way Cutler called on him to do it with Ginsberg is any indication.

And Ginsberg…I think Cutler perfectly called out his not-walking-his-blustery-talk persona. Ginsberg, unlike Peggy’s ex-boyfriend Abe, is an unfocused radical: he just mouths off vague leftist rhetoric about the general unease about the societal situation that is the late 60s as a form of venting, not as a basis of a structured worldview or point of political action. That’s why his attacking Cutler didn’t make any sort of sense, and it devolved as Cutler successfully gave his counterpoints.

Harry Hamlin as Jim Cutler: from LA Law to bringing law and order to Sterling Cooper & Partners.
Harry Hamlin as Jim Cutler: from L.A. Law to bringing law and order to Sterling Cooper & Partners.

Cutler’s angle is that he’s not feeling the general sloppiness of the merger, along with the old-fashioned notion of not feeling someone attacking his character, especially as unnecessarily as Ginsberg did. He feels that, as a partner–and Ginsberg’s boss–he has the right to fire Ginsberg for gross insubordination, but the merger left his job duties as nebulous. So, as underhanded as he’s being about Ginsberg, I think that Cutler will be the person to bring the necessary order out of the merger’s chaos.

Tami: So, Andrea and I were debating: Is Don a Republican or a Democrat? I had argued that he is a Republican (50s/60s-era, not Tea Party), but on second thought, he strikes me as apolitical. Don cares about nothing more than Don. He’s unmoved by the violence at the 1968 Democratic National Convention not necessarily because he’s on the side of the “pigs,” but because he’s only on his own side and couldn’t care less.

Renee: The show has shown him supporting Republican candidates and mocking the Democrats. I think as it relates to business Don is a Republican but on a personal level, I would have to agree with you Tami that he doesn’t really care.  If he didn’t have business interests to concern himself with, Don is far too self involved to care about politics.

Andrea: I think that, no thanks to the Tea Party and the GOP’s march toward the cliff of extremism–which started with Nixon–we forget there’s such a thing as a moderate Republican, which is what Don just may be. A moderate Republican may be pro-business, but they may not be so hardline about, say, hiring a white woman as a copy editor or having a Black woman placed as an executive secretary. But, having talked about it with other folks, Don’s actions regarding Peggy and Dawn–and his telling Joan his opposition to her having sex with the Jaguar representative just to get the partnership–suggests that he may, even with his ambivalence regarding women, he’s somewhat supportive of women having some professional advancement at Sterling Cooper & Partners or, at least, in being able to advance by their intelligence and not their bodies.

So, yeah, Don is a major cad, but there may be a nugget of professional gold in his otherwise callous heart. Maybe.

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  • sunshinefiasco

    Also! Consider watching again and look at Ginsburg with the idea that he might be mentally ill– it’s a theory I’ve heard elsewhere that I’m starting to believe holds water. It would fit with some of his comments about “transmissions to do harm” and his concerns about sanity (“I’ve never smoked that stuff, it makes you crazy”).

    As for Don as a Democrat or a Republican, it seemed clear that he was a Republican in the Kennedy election, but he seems to kinda hate Nixon. I would guess that he’s sliiiiiightly on the Dem side by ’68? He’s actually kind of apolitical– although he would definitely make the occasional comment in order to get along in earlier seasons. Given his background, he seems to be somewhat divested from politics.

  • Lisa

    This was an interesting episode, and I wish we could have focused a little more on Joan and Peggy because with Don it’s become the same old _____. He’s a man whore, we get it. At this point the main character has become the least interesting person on the show for me.

    I’ve been reflecting all week on exactly why Peggy was so upset at Joan’s power play. Peggy is clearly not a stranger to playing on Team Me. But I think this was a case of being upset at privilege. Honestly, I agree with nicthommi that part of the reason Peggy is so hard working is because she knows she’s not attractive enough to get away with using her sexuality as a tool/weapon the way that Joan does. Furthermore, Peggy is a person who believes in playing by the rules. Her knee-jerk, “I have it hard too!” responses to anyone else’s problems paint her as the type of person who believes in pulling yourself up by the bootstraps. Even though Joan is now a partner, and has been at Sterling Cooper longer than Peggy (albeit not in an accounts position), Peggy is resentful that she got there by subverting the rules. Peggy is a lot like the men of SCDPCGC in that she doesn’t value Joan’s contributions as equal to her own, or fully appreciate how much Joan has kept things going behind the scenes.

    Given their extremely different worldviews, saying they should be natural allies is misguided. I think that Joan would really be better off cultivating an alliance with Ken (he has always been coll-headed and can separate personal feelings from business cooperation) and Cutler (who is looking to cull SCDP folks to boost CGC’s leverage in the company). Really, in terms of strategic tactics, Cutler and Joan are a lot alike!

    • nicthommi

      Jim Cutler is cool as a cucumber and maybe a little bit of a sociopath. The way he is able to play people without giving away his intent or emotions is both masterful and unnerving. Unlike Ted, he was totally unemotional about his partner’s death.
      It’s really interesting seeing the still handsome Harry Hamlin in this role, b/c it doesn’t make use of his looks and I don’t think we’ve ever seen that from him (even though he’s probably about 60 or so now). I honestly almost missed that it was him despite being a big LA Law fan back in the day (which is kind of crazy considering how old I was when that show was popular).
      He really is playing them and it will be interesting to see if he succeeds. He has a good shot, b/c nothing rattles him and I think if one plan fails he is already prepared with 5 other moves.
      It’s interesting…Peggy is no beauty but she does alright with the fellas (as I feel many plain, competent, reliable, white women do…the advantage of numbers and still being the preferred choice of men of their own race), but I think she resents lacking beauty privilege. Even though many successfull men have found her desirable she will never be a bombshell and as has been stated, no one would have ever been willing to give up a multi-million dollar account for a night with her.
      The Joan/Don relationship is another one that is quite interesting. Joan seems like the kind of woman Don would enjoy as a mistress but never as a wife and yet he seems to hold her in a different category despite her obvious “charms”.

  • nicthommi

    Don isn’t progressive but I think that his own rags to riches assent makes him a bit disdainful of some of the antics born into complete privilege. Clearly, as a handsome white man in the 1950’s and 60’s, he has HUGE amounts of privilege but he wasn’t terribly impressed by Roger’s black face.
    Pete is another one whose views on things are pretty complicated. I remember him going on about his father-in-law’s black prostitute, but he also didn’t care for the blackface and I don’t think his comments about certain kinds of racism are always from a place of wanting to feel superior.
    I think he’s pretty practical about some things…clearly not leftwing but he’s demonstrated that he’s not AFRAID of change either, as long as it doesn’t inhibit his ascent.

  • nicthommi

    Too many comments from me today but I think that a LOT of the differences between Joan and Peggy need to be dissected when examining their relationship.
    Joan and Peggy aren’t a full generation apart, but Peggy was JUST starting after finishing secretarial school while Joan already had several years into the workforce. Joan was the Queen Bee when Peggy arrived in the only way a woman could be…she was queen of the secretaries. Peggy never had the OPTION of getting ahead on her looks but being a FEW years younger was an advantage b/c she had the talent AND got the choice and didn’t have the looks or body that would have made anyone get distracted by them. So Peggy’s slight youthfulness relative to Joan (who is over 30, where I think if you do the math, Peggy is still UNDER 30) is an advantage.
    Joan’s a college grad (remember when her college roommate showed up and tried to make a move on her?) and she aspired for as much as that would afford her as a 1950’s career woman (again, the show started in 1961 and Joan was already firmly established at Sterling Cooper) who wasn’t that interested in being a housewife.
    Peggy actually has no college degree but in an era when it wasn’t necessary, she got the opening b/c she had the knack and she had some early supporters (like Freddy and Don). We see Don can be a useful ally when there is no sexual tension with him.
    I compare Joan’s trajectory to the experience a black college grad had in the 40’s and 50’s versus what my parents had graduating in the 60’s. My dad started a career at IBM, in Westchester county, in the late 60’s, and had plenty of black peers. The 70’s saw many of them rising the ranks in the company. Had any of them been just 10-15 years older, that would NOT have been their path. There was only so much black people who finished college before 1960 could aspire too, whereas my parents just lucked into being young enough that college degrees were guarantees of being white collar professionals and solidly middle and upper middle class.
    We see that the Joan/Peggy relationship is complicated. They go back and forth between being frenemies and sometimes allies. I’m not sure why Peggy disapproved of Joan’s move so much, but we know that Joan respects AND envies the way that Peggy has been able to move into the boy’s space, b/c that first day when she was showing the plain, timid, badly dressed little girl around the office you could tell that she NEVER expected to be bested professionaly by her.
    The both have different forms of white woman privilege that the other envies, which is why their relationship is so complicated. And remember Joan’s reaction to Jane…Joan was Roger’s longtime mistress and never thought marriage was ever a possibility. She sees a young upstart come in and assume the role that she thought she could NEVER get, and she was quite angry in that scene as well.
    Joan has had certain expectations of her limlits as a woman and how she can get ahead and it pisses her off when she sees people who manage to get more with less of an investment or time put in.
    And let’s not forget the biggest contradiction of all when looking at Joan. With her looks, she COULD have lived the same life of privilege as Betty but she opted to take her beauty privilege into the workplace instead of becoming a rich man’s wife. Her background was more privileged than Peggy’s but way less privileged than Trudy, Betty, Ken’s wife, or Jane, and she opted not to use her beauty privilege to marry her way up to that level. I think she had hoped that her ex-husband would be a hard-working, career focused, boot-strapping person, b/c at the end of the day, those seem to be her core values. I think it’s why she picked him instead of a trust-fund baby.

    • racialicious

      Hey @nicthommi:disqus–

      It’s Andrea. Your insights are great! We don’t mind a short story’s worth of *great* comments around here…

    • LK

      Love the last few sentences of your comment, the part about Joan’s level of privilege and whether or not she could have had the lifestyle of Betty. I think it’s interesting that we meet Joan in her early 30s so it’s a mystery how she spent her 20s. But I’m not so sure she could have had the rich husband, because I feel like then she would have.

      I think this brings up something I’ve been thinking about a lot with the show which is that the first three seasons really struck me as being unified by the theme of aspiration and class differences between white people during the early 1960s, while seasons 5 and 6 seem to be much more about the general, radical zeitgeist and pulling off interesting aesthetic experiments that are meant to parallel the confusion and chaos of the later part of the 60s.

      What makes Joan and Peggy both really interesting characters in my view is that they not only have to negotiate their positions as women in a hugely male dominated workplace, but that both of them are actually much lower on the class totem pole than Roger, Pete, Bert, or what Don seems to be. The huge unfairness of Pete and Peggy’s relationship in season 1 is not just because of gender oppression but because of class oppression – Peggy is Catholic, from a more recently immigrated family in Brooklyn, and only went to secretarial school, while Pete is from a family of WASP New York royalty. Joan may have gone to college but there are a number of clues that indicate she grew up with way less than Betty or Trudy (interestingly, the latter two characters have fathers who seem to be very significant figures in their lives, while Joan’s father walked out). But the class limitations they faced earlier in the 1960s actually translate into way greater opportunity later on in the decade. Because they had to work, they already have a foot in the door. Both Betty and Trudy could lose everything if their marriages didn’t work out, because they don’t have many marketable skills.

      All of this reminds me of my grandmothers, neither of whom grew up in the US. One of them was from a much higher class background and so when things went really badly economically for the family in the 1950s and 1960s, working was still not an option (she also lived in a rural part of Italy, so that might have contributed), which meant she just had to continue being a housewife and having kids even though they needed more money. My other grandmother was from a much more working class background – when she moved to the US with my grandfather and mother, much to her chagrin, she had to go back to work as a seamstress. But actually, this turned out to be a great career opportunity for her as someone who didn’t speak much English and was already in her 50s when she came to a new country. She ended up doing much better than my grandfather and having way more independence than other women in that era because her supposedly “lower” skills actually provided a concrete job opportunity.

  • nicthommi

    As for the cheating, we see Don’s mistresses get the most screen time and character development but the ONLY man we HAVEN’T seen with a mistress of any kind is Ken, who is the only one who seems sincerely committed to his wife and marriage (and I think he got into with someone who was making fun of fat women, b/c his mother is fat, as did weasley Pete when the “fat” girl being mocked was secretely pregnant Peggy).

    So maybe it’s b/c of the extent to which we see his affairs but there are very few men on this show with clean records (Bert Cooper might have a clean slate too).

    Don Draper is an odd bird but cheating on women isn’t the worst thing he does and isn’t any different than how his peers behave. It just seems that when discussing his psyche or saying that he hates women, it’s not really accurate to let the other men in the office off the hook if we are going to go there.

  • nicthommi

    Danny isn’t Roger’s ex-brother-in-law. He’s his ex-cousin-in-law. Danny got the interview at SCDP b/c he was Jane’s cousin, and they wound up having to hire him b/c Don got so drunk that he used Danny’s tagline with Post Cereal (or some other client).

  • Shawn0680

    I think the L.A. trips serve multiple purposes to the story. California is where Dick Whitman went to refine Don Draper, and it’s always been his big escape hatch. Second, it’s an opportunity to look at some of the differences between the East and West Coast cultures during this same time period, and how it plays into the advertising world with the growing influence of television. And finally, if offers an opportunity for “cat’s away” shenanigans both with the travelers and those remaining at the office. In thee less connected world of the 60’s (compared to now) you could get up to more mischief without being found out.

    Betty and Joan have a great opportunity to both move forward in gaining power in the workplace if they can put their differences aside and go with what they admire in each other. BTW, id you catch the nod to Dawn and Joan two episodes back when Peggy came from looking for Don and said Dawn was a good secretary, she didn’t say anything about where he was (Much as Joan taught her in Season 1 when she was Don’s secretary)?

    • nicthommi

      Don used to have his one safe space and anchor in California, before Anna died. I think it’s important to consider how California is for him not that he doesn’t have her, b/c he was the most genuine and most honest when he was with her. It started b/c of his fraud but it was the best and most genuine relationship with a woman that he will EVER have.